Inexplicably, it is seen as rude not to send postcards, even if you're only going away for a week and will be back at work well before the requisite office postcard wends its way through the vagaries of, say, the Italian postal system.
And what to write in such a small space? Attempts to think of a comment funny enough to amuse both flatmates and the postman are rarely successful. Is it really worth making the effort for a remark about the weather?
Back in 1879, when postcards were invented in Germany by Herr E Herrmann, there was clearly a point to them. Before we had telephones, they were an efficient means of communication. Stick on a halfpenny stamp and a postcard could be counted on to get anywhere in the country for the following day.
According to Kenneth Westcott Jones, co-founder of the British Guild of Travel Writers and a postcard aficionado whose collection numbers some 46,000 cards, the most valuable postcards are those which were sent by passengers on the Titanic and posted from Queenstown, the ship's last port of call. Only three (estimated value pounds 2,500) are known still to exist, although hundreds were sent. Kenneth's pride is a postcard from a passenger on a ship 12 miles away which didn't go to the Titanic's rescue. The writer reports being stuck in ice.
Since it is unlikely your holiday missives will prove as memorable, you may want to try procuring them for free. Says James Bentley, a seasoned travel writer: "Go into hotels posher than the one you're staying in - ideally somewhere really plush like the Imperial in Vienna - and ask the porter for some of theirs."
"Local tourist boards are an excellent source. Indeed, the finest postcard I ever sent was of the beauty spots of Hull, from the Hull Tourist Board. Alternatively, you can get postcards from the first-class section on Lufthansa, even if you are flying economy. Unfortunately, they are all of their airplanes, but they do also provide damn useful airmail envelopes."
He suggests always using envelopes, which the very organised can type before setting off. "This means you can describe scatological episodes and send wicked pictures that would otherwise be confiscated. Were you in Paris, for example, you could send postcard reproductions of Courbet's The Origins of the World - a 19th-century painting of a woman's genitals which has recently gone on show at the Musee d'Orsay."
Sending them in envelopes, of course, also means you have more room to write in. But if that subtly ironic observation of your host country continues to elude you, you could resort to buying your stamps in the lowest denomination available and fill the card up that way.
Or you could just dispense with sending them altogether. For the grand gesture, place an ad to that effect in the classifieds, with the excuse that you are giving the money to charity.
The Postcard Traders' Fair runs from 30 August to 2 September at the Royal Horticultural Society Halls, Greycoat St, London, SWI (0171-834 4333)Reuse content